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Peterson burned by final farm bill policy and process

Congress passed a short-term extension of federal farm policy as a part of the fiscal cliff package Tuesday.

Rep. Collin Peterson has been particularly adamant that lawmakers institute a new system for dealing with dairy prices.
REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Farm interests and the lawmakers who excel at legislating them were rolled in the last-minute congressional haggling over a package to avoid the fiscal cliff.

That appears to be Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson’s message after Congress passed a short-term extension of current farm policy instead of taking up either a longer-term bill or a more nuanced approach to federal support for dairy producers.

As part of the fiscal cliff bill Congress passed on Tuesday, current farm policy is extended for nine months, setting a Sept. 30 deadline for legislative action on a long-term bill. The Senate passed a five-year farm bill over the summer, and the House Agriculture Committee did the same, but the bill never came to the House floor for a vote.

Either bill would have ended direct subsidies to farmers and saved several billion dollars over the next five years. Peterson has been particularly adamant that lawmakers institute a new system for dealing with dairy prices (Bloomberg explains it here). But in the final days of the fiscal cliff debate, congressional leadership and the White House decided to sidestep the bills and extend current farm policy, punting the issue of passing a five-year bill to the new Congress set to be sworn in on Thursday.

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Politico describes:

In the final hours, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) found herself pushed aside in favor of legislative language generated by the office of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a bit player and frequent “no” vote when the Senate adopted a more comprehensive five-year farm bill last June.

McConnell’s role in the tax talks gave him immense leverage, while Stabenow was hurt by committee infighting over her efforts to write a more comprehensive farm bill extension that included changes in the dairy program.

The upshot is a victory for Southern agricultural interests with the greatest stake in a costly system of direct cash payments to often already profitable producers. In the dairy arena, giant processors like Dean Foods Co. come out ahead while the outcome is a major blow for the National Milk Producers Federation, which watched with disbelief from the sidelines on New Year’s Eve. …

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, had warned the White House that it must tread carefully on the dairy and farm bills issues or risk a backlash. And Peterson didn’t hide his anger with the administration for helping to roll Stabenow and the agriculture committees.

“Upset is an understatement,” Peterson told POLITICO. “I’m not going to talk with those guys. I’m done with them for the next four years. They are on their own. They don’t give a sh-it. about me, anyway.”

“This is crazy, “ Peterson said of the tax package itself. “The farm bill is one thing, but there’s just no way I’m going to add $4 trillion to the deficit. … We’re not doing anything. We’re making it worse.”

The farm bill process will restart when the new Congress is sworn in this week, and lawmakers and the farm industry will have nine months to put together a long-term plan like the one they hoped to pass last year.

Behind-the-scenes hand-wringing aside, the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees backed the short-term extension, as did the Minnesota Farmers Union, which said Monday, “With Congress at an impasse, a nine-month extension may be the only path to a five-year farm bill in the new Congress.”

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Peterson will return as the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com.